SF Chronicle – Vacant foreclosed homes spawn blight, crime
Robert Klein, CEO of Safeguard Properties, was quoted in an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about vacant properties in high-risk areas.
Vacant foreclosed homes spawn blight, crime
Carolyn Said, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, May 3, 2009
Next door to Jeffrey Cash’s tidy East Oakland bungalow sits a boarded-up foreclosed house that has been vacant for months, attracting locals who shoot dice in the driveway, smoke crack on the porch and dump debris in the yard, he said.
“I call the cops on a regular basis, but it is an ongoing battle,” he said. “It’s a part-time job making sure it doesn’t become more of an eyesore than it already is.”
Last week, someone hurled a brick through Cash’s front window – he thinks in retaliation for his frequent contacts with the police.
His situation is emblematic of a larger problem. The droves of vacant foreclosures nationwide and locally, many of them clustered in low-income areas, act as magnets for crime and create neighborhood blight, according to residents and civic leaders. While cities try to fight back, in many cases the sheer volume is so overwhelming that their efforts are scattershot at best.
“Just about every foreclosed property on my beat has some kind of problem,” said Derek Smitheram, a police officer in East Oakland, which he said has thousands of vacant homes.
On Thursday, a single hour with Smitheram’s partner – both are what Oakland calls “problem-solving officers” – dramatized the extent of foreclosure blight.
Officer Mark Castillo pulled up to a vacant foreclosure near International Boulevard that was surrounded by mounds of garbage. After checking on the house, he went to the backyard and grasped the boards nailed in front of the garage door. The door readily opened, and he recoiled from the stench of urine and filth. Inside, an elderly man huddled on a makeshift bed surrounded by fast-food wrappers, matches and old clothes.
“I know I can’t be here,” the man, Alfonso Granera, 71, told Castillo. He agreed to meet the officer in a couple of hours for a ride to a shelter.
“These places quickly become a breeding ground for all kinds of crime,” Castillo said, pointing out the crawl spaces under the house, which he said criminals use for illegal stashes. “Drug crews run a corner, they use vacant properties to hide drugs and weapons.”
Needle, used condom
At a boarded-up foreclosure a few blocks away, Castillo found a hypodermic needle and used condom in the backyard.
“We board this place up at least once a month,” he said. “After a week or two, we get calls from the neighbors; we come out, and it’s been broken into again. We have done more of these than we can count – we clean them up and secure them, then people break in again and trash them. It could even be the same day.”
A study by the nonprofit research Center for Responsible Lending found that a foreclosure lowers the value of nearby homes by an average of about $6,000. The study projects that 2.4 million homes will be taken back by lenders this year, having a spillover effect on another 73 million homes.
At foreclosed properties, “we’ve encountered trespassers, squatters and activities such as drug use and prostitution,” Smitheram said. “There is a lot of gang graffiti and vandalism – stripping the properties of anything of value. Some become a dumping ground for litter. Some are used as a burglary clearinghouse – thieves will burglarize other homes in the neighborhood and store the stolen goods in the vacant foreclosure.”
Cities deal with the vacant foreclosures as best they can.
Many turn to anti-blight ordinances to try to force the banks that own the foreclosures to take care of them – mow the lawns, board up windows and doors – or face stiff fines if they don’t. A California bill enacted in September (SB1137) allows municipalities to charge lenders $1,000 a day for failing to maintain foreclosed properties; some cities already have similar anti-blight provisions in place.
Taking aggressive approach
Some municipalities aggressively try to nip problems in the bud.
Starting April 1, San Jose assigned three code enforcement officers “to focus on proactively identifying vacant, neglected properties and taking actions to make them safe, secure and sanitary,” said Jamie Matthews, division manager for code enforcement in San Jose. Redevelopment funds cover the costs because most San Jose foreclosures are concentrated in areas included in the city’s Strong Neighborhoods Initiative, he said.
Pittsburg marshals staff from several departments to monitor foreclosures, said Marc Grisham, city manager.
“I go out and drive the streets every day,” he said. “Everybody is charged with the task. We tag the vacant property. We do everything to track down who’s currently in control of it. If the banks are unresponsive to our first contact, police officers call them; that usually gets their attention.”
Pittsburg uses “vigorous” fines and liens to recoup its costs. “We just got a check from the county for a couple of hundred thousand dollars for liens,” Grisham said.
Daily fine in Oakland
John Russo, Oakland city attorney, said the city is gearing up to use California’s new foreclosure-blight law to force lenders to maintain their properties.
The $1,000-a-day fine “is a powerful tool for some tough and fair negotiations with banks,” he said. “The most important thing is to have banks understand that it’s not OK to treat foreclosed properties just like numbers on their ledgers; these are actual homes in the fabric of our neighborhoods. If banks have several properties on a block that they’re holding, waiting for the market to turn, maybe they need to hire security guards. That is their responsibility; it is their property.”
Robert Klein, CEO of Safeguard Properties, which works for lenders to secure and care for foreclosed homes nationwide, said 85 to 90 percent of foreclosures are safe and sound. His firm conducted 1 million foreclosure inspections last month, including 75,000 in California.
“Most properties are well maintained,” said Klein, who chairs the Mortgage Bankers Association Vacant Property Registration Committee. Blighted homes “are the exception, not the rule.”
Klein said Safeguard contractors take extra steps in areas of high vandalism, such as doing weekly inspections.
“But we’re limited in what we can do,” he said. “We can’t put cages around the properties.”
Actually, in Oakland, the public works department sometimes has erected tall chain-link fences around troublesome foreclosures.
“This is what we like them to look like,” Castillo said, showing off a boarded-up foreclosure protected by such a fence. “We’re trying to eliminate that nexus of criminal activity and blight in the neighborhood.”
But a well-secured foreclosure is a rarity in his East Oakland beat area, Castillo said. Instead, the properties “are a huge addition to our workload.
“It’s the broken-window theory,” he said. “If you allow visible blight to enter your neighborhood, it sends a message to the criminal element that they can do whatever they want.”
What to do about foreclosures next door
Police and city officials want neighbors to act as their eyes and ears to help monitor foreclosure problems.
— Report any suspicious activities to the local police department.
— If a property is blighted – broken windows, overgrown lawn – call your city’s code enforcement division or public works department.